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Interim Superintendent Has High Hopes For MPS, Others Have High Hopes For Him

Emily Files
Keith Posley took over as Milwaukee Public Schools interim superintendent in May.

There is a new leader making decisions that affect about 80,000 Milwaukee schoolchildren.

Keith Posley took over as Milwaukee Public Schools’ interim superintendent a few months ago. He wants to turn around low-achieving schools, slash chronic absenteeism and boost enrollment. And he’s not the only one with great expectations. Other Milwaukee education leaders have high hopes for Posley himself.

“This work is all about children for me,” he said in an interview with WUWM.

Posley has been with MPS for close to 30 years. He was a teacher, then a principal, and gradually moved up the administrative ladder.

School Board Member Terry Falk says Posley’s experience distinguishes him from previous superintendent Darienne Driver, who left in May for a job in Michigan.

“Driver was never a principal,” Falk said in a phone interview. “Posley had been a longtime principal. I think that reflected how they looked at the budget to some degree.”

Driver’s budget decisions favored central administration. Posley’s favor classrooms.

“Which direction is the correct one? That is not easily answered,” Falk said. “But it does emphasize the difference in attitude in terms of how the two superintendents look at what they’re gonna do.”

Driver defended her proposed 5 percent reduction to classrooms in the most recent budget by saying unpopular changes were necessary because of a gaping budget deficit.

But when Posley took over, he changed course. He directed money back toward classrooms and made a $13 million cut to central office administration.

"My goal is not to cut classrooms, because that's truly where the rubber meets the road for the learning process," said Keith Posley.

“It was almost a 180 [degree] reversal,” said Milwaukee Teachers Education Association President Amy Mizialko. The teachers’ union was immediately supportive of the move.

MPS teacher morale seems to be improving, at least partly due to the new leadership, according to Mizialko.

“People are feeling good and hopeful,” she said. “[They feel] maybe that this return to school is best one they’ve had in about eight years.”

Even if budget issues persist, Posley says he wants to maintain current levels of per-student spending.

“My goal is not to cut classrooms, because that’s truly where the rubber meets the road for the learning process,” he said.

On the first day of the early start school year, Posley announced a lofty goal: for MPS test scores to skyrocket and surpass the state average. But there's a lot standing in his way. More than 75 percent of MPS students are economically disadvantaged. Like the city, schools are highly segregated.  

Posley thinks buckling down on the core subjects could help students succeed despite challenges. He calls it the ‘Ambitious Instruction Plan’ – a framework to enhance reading, writing and math instruction. He says his experience as principal of Clarke Street School illuminated the importance of core classes.

Interim Superintendent Keith Posley talks with WUWM's Emily Files on Lake Effect.

“We were a 90-90-90 school. Ninety percent attendance, 90 percent poverty and 90 percent proficiency,” Posley explained. “And it was simple. It was this whole thing around math, reading and writing at mastery levels with fidelity of implementation every single day.”

Emphasis on core subjects is a district-wide project. But Posley is also funneling resources to a cluster of schools in one of the most segregated and impoverished zip codes — 53206.

The 53206 initiative adds staff to provide more academic and emotional support. Seven schools will be restructured with the goal of creating a feeder system to Douglas Middle School and then North Division High School. North Division will become a ‘community school.’

If Posley’s moves don’t seem short-term, that’s for a reason. He says he "absolutely" wants to be permanent superintendent.

And he appears to have a good chance. School Board President Mark Sain says judging by Posley’s performance so far, he deserves a shot at the permanent job. Board member Terry Falk is also open to Posley staying in the superintendent position.

But he warns against viewing any one leader as the savior of a school district.

“Too often we concentrate our efforts too much on a single individual to be the knight on the horse coming in to save the district,” Falk said. “This has to be a group effort.”

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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